Washington is struggling to maintain its two-thirds-of-a-century-long military domination of the Pacific, conquered with U.S. imperialism’s bloody triumph in World War II.
The U.S. Navy’s supremacy over the South China Sea—with its vital trade routes, large oil and gas deposits, and proximity to major U.S. allies and rivals—was among Washington’s most cherished spoils of the war.
Obama’s Nov. 17-20 tour was his fourth visit to East Asia in as many years. He began in Myanmar, the first trip there by a U.S. president. Washington had maintained sanctions against Myanmar, also known as Burma, since 1988.
As part of Washington’s moves to counter China, Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar in December last year. The White House pointed to the release of some political prisoners, relaxation of political repression and moves toward putting a civilian face on the military junta as reasons to improve relations.
Since then more political prisoners have been released, including bourgeois opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been held under house arrest for 15 years. Washington has eased some of its sanctions and appointed an ambassador to the country.
Obama said this visit was an “acknowledgement that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.” He met with President Thein Sein and Suu Kyi.
“The United States of America is a Pacific nation and we see our future as bound to those nations and peoples to our West,” Obama said in a Nov. 19 speech at the University of Yangon. “And as our economy recovers this is where we believe we will find enormous economic growth.”
Myanmar is rich in mineral resources, including petroleum, natural gas, timber, tin, zinc and copper.
In Thailand, a long-term U.S. ally, Obama met with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to press Bangkok to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc Washington is trying to cobble together against China. It’s comprised of Asian nations Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, as well as Chile, Peru, Mexico and Canada.
Obama’s last stop was Cambodia, where he attended a sharply contentious meeting of the East Asia Summit, along with Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, and representatives of Japan, Russia, South Korea, India and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN includes Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and others.
The summit was marked by sharp exchanges over counterposed territorial claims, as well as conflicts between the U.S. and China over efforts to put together competing trade blocs.
Washington has exploited territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN member states, pressing for stronger ties with those arrayed against Beijing and to deepen its own military presence in the region.
China claims sovereignty over all land inside the South China Sea, including more than 40 islands. In June, Beijing set up a new national prefecture headquartered in the Paracel Islands. In July, China’s Central Military Commission announced that it would deploy a garrison of soldiers to guard the islands in the area.
More than half the world’s supertanker traffic passes through these waters, which are believed to hold vast reserves of oil and gas.
Over the last year Washington has expanded its military and political cooperation with traditional allies like Japan, Australia and the Philippines.
The U.S. Navy plans to place 60 percent of its warships in the Pacific over the next eight years, up from 50 percent now.
In April the first 250 U.S. Marines out of a deployment of 2,500 arrived in Darwin, Australia.
Washington deepens ties with ManilaWashington has deepened its ties with Manila. As of October this year 70 U.S. warships had passed through the former U.S. base at Subic Bay, up from 55 in 2011. The Pentagon says more than 100 warplanes stop over each month at Clark, another former U.S. base.
In September, Tokyo and Washington reached an agreement to deploy a second major advanced missile defense radar on Japanese territory. A third radar would be positioned in the Philippines, creating an arc that would make it possible to track ballistic missiles launched from North Korea and large parts of China.
In August, the U.S. and Japanese governments signed an agreement to deploy unmanned drones to monitor Chinese activity in waters surrounding Diaoyu Islands—called Senkaku by Tokyo—in the East China Sea, claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan.
In a provocative move against Beijing, the Japanese government in September bought the islands from their private owner. According to the Burmese online news agency Irrawaddy, one of the exercises planned later this year is a joint Japan/U.S. maneuver that take a remote island back from a foreign intruder.
“Obama’s tour seemingly has a menacing manner, but it cannot change the reality that Southeast Asia is economically tied to China,” Global Times, a voice for the Chinese government, said in a Nov. 19 commentary on Obama’s trip. “There may be some political and military implications in providing encouragement to some countries, but Southeast Asian countries have seen this kind of tempt many times over the past four years, and its effectiveness is increasingly fading.”
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